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American Splendor

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In the same way that Harvey Pekar's comic books are inseparable from his real life, so is the new movie about him made to seem as though it's contact-printed straight from his prickly persona. Named after the writer's best-known comic, American Splendor is mostly a series of re-enacted vignettes from his life (or from his comics, assuming there's any difference). Yet filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini haven't made a standard film biography: With Pekar himself as narrator and chief talking head, American Splendor is a willfully odd-limbed hybrid of docudrama and conventional documentary, with a little animation tossed in for good measure.

Given an iconoclast like Pekar, in some ways you wouldn't want anything else: Can you imagine Ken Burns taking a pass at him (even if Pekar, a lifelong jazz fanatic, hadn't publicly ripped Burns' PBS Jazz series for its conservatism)? When Pekar's own writings are so much about the obsessive reassessment of his own thoughts and feelings, it's only appropriate that the film should incorporate a series of commentaries and hecklings, most of them by Pekar -- even if by now he's a cultural icon himself.

Still, the approach has its drawbacks: While honoring Pekar's injunction not to Hollywood up his story, the film fails to fully capture his art, and sands off a bit of his edge besides.

When not played by himself, in American Splendor Pekar is portrayed by the capable Paul Giamatti, who channels the restless mannerisms and perpetually peeved glare of this self-taught intellectual and born malcontent. ("My outlook is doom and gloom," Harv notes.) He's a Veterans Administration hospital file clerk, living in Cleveland and compulsively collecting records, when his first wife leaves him, pitching him even deeper into despair. But Pekar's life had a turning point he hadn't recognized at the time: his friendship with Robert Crumb (James Urbaniak), formed in the early '60s when the fellow record junkie and budding artist was Pekar's neighbor on the working-class East Side. The early incarnations of Crumb's celebrated underground comics were an epiphany for Pekar, who realized comics could be legit art, not just superhero wanks for pimpled boys.

There was an everyday heroism to Pekar's next move: He quit bitching about the world, sat down, picked up a pencil and started writing about it. The moment, unprepossessingly depicted by Berman and Pulcini, is a wonderful one: Giamatti as Pekar at his cluttered desk, inscribing rough panels on white paper and filling them with words and stick figures -- he can't draw a lick -- detailing the trials and small triumphs of his life. Compellingly illustrated by Crumb and other artists, Pekar's American Splendor, first published in 1976, was something new in comics, neither commercial nor underground. "The subject matter of these stories is so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic!" Crumb wrote in his introduction to the first American Splendor anthology.

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff," says Pekar in the film. Certainly Pekar himself is. Splendor depicts not only his funny self-deprecations ("Now there's a reliable disappointment," says Pekar at his mirror) and genuine regard for the misfits and other characters he works with and lives around, but also his less attractive side. In other words, while he's bracingly honest -- "I had a vasectomy" is practically how he introduces himself to future wife Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) -- he's also patently self-centered and pathetically needy. "I'll be anything you want me to be," he tells Joyce, desperate to keep her.

The film samples panels from his comics, including Our Cancer Year, Pekar's and Brabner's account of his treatment for cancer; it also re-creates excerpts of some of his stories as live-action passages. Yet even half an hour spent with the book version of American Splendor demonstrates the film's limitations. Pekar's stories come to life on the page not only through the thick, sure, wonderfully organic lines drawn by an R. Crumb, but also through being rendered whole. There's more of the nuance of Pekar's thought, more of the truth of his world, in the beautifully cranky "Freddy Visits for the Weekend" (a shaggy-dog story about a freeloading pal) or the six pages of "How I Quit Collecting Records and Put Out a Comic Book With the Money I Saved," than in the whole of the film. And the movie's write-off of Pekar's famous self-immolation on the Letterman show ("Are you afraid of the truth, David?") as the product of personal pressures tends to obscure Pekar's legitimate political point about NBC's vassalage to parent company GE.

Davis, like Giamatti, gives a fine performance, and if nothing else the movie will move some comics, which should make Harv happy. But it's hard to say what the film gains by showing us the actors playing Pekar, Brabner and his socially inept coworker Toby Radloff alongside the real McCoys -- or, odder still, by having Giamatti walk out of a fictional green room only to reappear on a TV monitor moments later as the real Pekar. The approach feels novel at first, but ultimately both deflates the re-enactments and distracts from the documentary. It's a superficially "honest" way to avoid giving shape to the material, to giving it the artistic punch of Pekar's own best stories.

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